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‘My day begins at 2:30 am’: An interview with India’s hermit-bishop

"Prayer is not simply to ask for some favors. It is a true union with God, and the dialogue happens between God and man."

Fr. Mathew Vazhacharickal, Fr. Joseph Thadathil, Bishop Jacob Muricken, and Fr. Joseph Alancheril at the bishops’ residence in Nallathanni, southern India. Photo courtesy of Fr. Joseph Alancheril.

Bishop Jacob Muricken is a rarity in the Catholic Church: a prelate who left mid-ministry to pursue the life of a hermit.

The 59-year-old Indian bishop has seldom followed a conventional path. Even when he was an auxiliary bishop of the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Palai (also known as Pala), he was known for his asceticism: walking around barefoot and eating one meal a day. He also donated a kidney to a Hindu man who had been forced to sell his house to cover treatment costs.

Bishop Muricken officially stepped away from his diocesan responsibilities on Aug. 25. Since then, he has been living in a small hermitage in Nallathanni, a cool, hilly place around 20 miles away from Bishop’s House in Palai, southern India. In place of his white bishops’ robes, he wears a simple outfit in a shade of orange known locally as “kashaya” and associated with ascetics.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, hermits “devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance.”

“They manifest to everyone the interior aspect of the mystery of the Church, that is, personal intimacy with Christ,” it says. “Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is a silent preaching of the Lord, to whom he has surrendered his life simply because he is everything to him.”

Despite his recent embrace of a life of “silent preaching,” Bishop Muricken agreed to answer questions from The Pillar presented through a priest-friend.

In his at times lyrical responses, he challenged some myths about his new way of life, such as that hermits are cut off in their solitude from the rest of humanity. He also expressed a conviction that the Church is “going through a spiritual crisis” and needs to give “utmost importance” to its spiritual traditions.

Despite his otherworldly qualities, Bishop Muricken was known before his resignation as a dedicated social activist close to the poor. Judging from his answers, that passion remains intact, with his stress on protecting the environment and promoting the “worth of labor.”

Bishop Jacob Muricken, who is known for going barefoot, outside his home in Nallathanni, southern India. Photo courtesy of Fr. Joseph Alancheril.

Can you describe your journey from the life of an auxiliary bishop to that of a hermit?

Yes, I shall try my best to convey the journey from the life of a bishop to the state of a hermit, but it is not easy to understand what I am going to share. Nevertheless, that is not a problem. First, it is the result of divine inspiration. I think so because of two reasons: (a) this inspiration comes at the time of prayer; (b) I like to remain as a bishop in his office, but this inspiration is against my position.

The Syro-Malabar Synod, in 2012, elected me as the auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Pala. After five years, in 2017, I had a strong inner urge to embrace the intense ascetic life. I had no such aspiration till that time and considered the message as from God Almighty. He has His plans.

I communicated this inner call to my bishop and the Major Archbishop [Cardinal George Alencherry]. Both of them told me to remain in prayer and meditation. God asked me to take a new path which requires something more from my human nature. It is not easy to understand the meaning of such inspiration, but one will gradually know it.

The first inspiration was in 2017, which also continued so strongly later. I realized that I could never turn my face away from this divine call and finally wrote to the authorities and got permission to choose the life of a hermit.

What is a typical day in your life now that you are a hermit?

My day begins at 2.30 a.m., and the first-hour prayer is at 3 a.m. I am following the pattern of the Liturgy of the Hours of the Syro-Malabar Church seven times a day.

Usually, I remain for eight hours a day in prayer, both the liturgical and the personal, meditation and adoration. The remaining time is for study, work, writing, etc. I recline by 9.30 p.m.

Bishop Jacob Muricken at his residence in Nallathanni, southern India. Photo courtesy of Fr. Joseph Alancheril.

What is the role of a hermit in the life of the Church?

The life of a hermit is the basis of all types of ascetic life. The Second Vatican Council admonishes us to “return to the sources.” The hermit is an icon of the energy source the council envisages. God’s presence only can be experienced in absolute silence and solitude.

We live in a society where every space and moment is supposed to be “filled” with projects, activities, and noise. There is no time to listen and converse. Ours is a time of continuous movement, often leading to restlessness, with the risk of “doing for the sake of doing.” We must resist this temptation by trying “to be” before trying “to do.” Man can encounter God only in silence, prayer, and internal and external solitude.

The Church affirms that humanity is the daughter of a silent God: for human beings are the sons of silence. Silence is not an absence. It is the manifestation of a presence, which is the most intense of all presences. See that our blood flows through the veins without making any noise, and we can hear our heartbeats only in silence. See how nature — trees, flowers, grass, etc. — grows in silence. Again look at the stars, the moon, and the sun and how they move in silence.

Likewise, the life of a hermit is not inactive, but it rounds actively with the mind of the Creator of the universe. A hermit is not alone but always with the whole created beings. He is the center of an invisible communion. He assimilates the world from the perspective of a world yet to come.

Has living as a hermit given you a new perspective on the Church and its challenges?

The fundamental question today is whether religious values will survive the onslaught of the emerging culture of the world. Amid the material comforts, man experiences a spiritual vacuum in the heart. This aspect of lacking inner spirituality makes our life miserable. The existing spiritual practices need to satisfy the internal thrust of these people to reach the ultimate reality.

The spirit of the world has attained more space in people’s hearts because of the low-voltage light of the religions. The Church has no adequate weapons to counteract the worldly currents. So a radical way of living which may pose something extra-sensitive is inevitable. We should have the courage to chalk out the paths of cosmic reality and must be obligated to teach the faithful to protect themselves from the pleasures of the flesh, money, and positions.

The saying is that the world will end as Christianity begins a mighty battle with the world, that is, between Christ and Baal, between the forces who crucify and the power which is crucified. God sends someone in time to confront the undercurrents of worldly temptations which may creep into the Church corridors.

Prayer, contemplation, simplicity, fasting, abstinence, silence, seclusion from the world, etc., are inseparable parts of true spirituality. Unfortunately, such spirituality is not well cared for and promoted by the Church. The result is that genuine spirituality is put aside to the periphery.

We could add here the warning of an eminent theologian, Karl Barth: “The Church must not allow itself to be swept away by the movements of the age.” Erosion and decadence of faith-based Gospel values and morals have become the style of the age.

An antidote for spiritual diseases is to follow the principles of proper conduct inculcated by the saints. According to St. Teresa of Ávila, silent prayer that leads to contemplation is essential to union with God in the midst of and despite our multi-faceted engagements. So the Church, which is going through a spiritual crisis, is decisive for the years to come. We must give utmost importance to the rich traditions of the Church, especially to hermitism and monasticism.

Again, our mother Earth has significantly suffered due to the unending exploitation of resources and pollution. An analysis of the existing vision of the Church regarding environmental concerns needs updating. This vision arises in the context of ecological crisis and pro-environmental teaching. A crucial environmental management strategy is the creation of awareness among people on the worth of labor, the sanctity and the intrinsic value of every form of creature. The temptation to construct large buildings at the cost of the environment should be prevented, at least in Church circles.

The answer to the ecological crisis is to learn the message of the hermit and the monastic form of life. That is not for eternal life but for protecting our mother Earth.

Do you have any advice about prayer, particularly for Catholics who have busy everyday lives in the secular world?

Prayer is the food for our minds and soul. A man of prayer is a blessing to humankind and can establish an ultimate relationship with God Almighty which is the basis of all relationships.

What is holiness? Holiness is a relationship — a genuine relationship with God, brethren, earth and one’s self. Prayer is not simply to ask for some favors. It is a true union with God, and the dialogue happens between God and man. Such a union is essential for a creative life and positive relationships with others.

So the aims of my divinely inspired hermitage life are:

1. Glorification of God.

2. Sanctification of the Church.

3. The salvation of souls.

4. Protection of nature.

5. To witness the Gospel values.

The spiritual weapons of the hermitage life are:

1. Prayer.

2. Adoration.

3. Meditation.

4. Fasting.

5. Night vigil.

6. Solitude.

7. Silence.

8. Self-denial.

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